“A legislature matters more than the luge”

I grew up in Canada, and lately I’m wondering what the hell is happening to make it go so horribly off the rails. Let’s backtrack about a year, to when Slate.com ran a piece called “What’s the Matter with Canada? How the world’s nicest country turned mean.

On December 30th, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued the government (it means discontinuing the session of parliament without dissolving it) for the second time in about a year. He did it the first time to avoid having his party’s minority leadership in parliament challenged by a vote of no confidence. (For those of you who somehow missed Canadian civics, if a vote of no confidence carries, the next step is a general election.)

When he did it a second time, it prompted Errol P. Mendes, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Ottawa, to write a piece that ran in the Toronto Star, which is really worth reading.

“The early decision to shut down Parliament was clearly to avoid the continuing scrutiny of a House of Commons committee over the mounting evidence of wilful blindness by the Harper government over the transfer of Afghan detainees to a substantial risk of torture. This is potentially a war crime and one of the most serious allegations any government has faced in the history of Canada.”

Mendes also outlines some of the other “unconstitutional behaviour” the Harper administration has been up to. What’s eerie is how much of it is reminiscent of the Bush administration. But even Bush/Cheney didn’t have the balls to shut down the government twice, just to get themselves out of hot water.

Enter The Economist, with its Olympian tone and unbylined stories. Now, The Economist is nobody’s ideal of a bleeding heart liberal magazine (even though they quaintly call themselves a newspaper), and they often profess their admiration for free markets.

However.

This is one of the colonies, and they are, you know, The Economist, and they see through your shady maneuvers, Mr. Harper.

His officials faced grilling by parliamentary committees over whether they misled the House of Commons in denying knowledge that detainees handed over to the local authorities by Canadian troops in Afghanistan were being tortured. The government would also have come under fire for its lack of policies to curb Canada’s abundant carbon emissions. Prorogation means that such committees—which carry out the essential democratic task of scrutinising government—will have to be formed anew in March.

(That means no governmental oversight until MARCH — after the Winter Olympics take place in Whistler, British Columbia, next month.)

Their rejoinder is in the form of a sub-headline. And I quote: “A legislature matters more than the luge.”

Amen.

Miss Wasilla Applies for a Job

Miss Wasilla, 1984They should move up the election; I swear to God. First came the reports that the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 in September alone on Sarah Palin’s wardrobe and accessories. A blogger for Slate named Dahlia Lithwick noted that “spending $150,000 on incredibly high-end designer duds not only looks bad to Joe the Plumber, but also turns Palin from Joe Sixpack into Empress Josephine.”

Lithwick makes a more interesting point that points the blame (rightly) at American culture:

It is really, really different to be a woman in the public eye. The standards for looking “good” are completely unfair, and the stakes are vastly higher for failing to do so. We obsessed about John Edwards’ haircut because a bad haircut truly wouldn’t have mattered. We obsessed over Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, or her pantsuits, or her highlights because they matter so much.

Then this morning, reports started coming out that the highest paid individual in the McCain campaign is “[Not] Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser; not Nicolle Wallace, his senior communications staffer. It was Amy Strozzi, who was identified by the Washington Post this week as Gov. Sarah Palin’s traveling makeup artist.”

Clothes, make-up … but what about hair? It’s covered. “In addition, Angela Lew, who is apparently Ms. Palin’s traveling hair stylist, got $10,000 for “Communications Consulting” in the first half of October.”

But the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin is that Hillary Clinton’s appearance was a weird issue because she was being held to a double standard, wanting to be taken seriously as a senator and a viable presidential candidate, while also having to keep up appearances as a woman.

But Palin wants it a different way. She wants to be girly-pretty, and She’s using her looks, because there’s little substance to her actual qualifications or platform.

If we were electing a celebrity, makeup, hair, clothes, and fawning celebrity profiles would be pluses. But we’re choosing someone who’s supposed to be better than we are at governing, and her actual track record indicates she’s neither qualified nor ethical.

Christopher Hitchins made a great suggestion: Stop covering Palin until she gives a press conference. Not that she ever would. A press conference would be too much like a job interview, with tough, unfair, surprising questions that would test your qualifications and ability to think on your feet. And all the hair and makeup in the world can’t cover for you there.

Jon Taplin has an interesting lead in a blog post today:

As Merrill Lynch brokers arrived at their desks this morning they were greeted with an urgent memo as to how to deal with the possibility that the stock exchange might not open this morning. Europe and Asia had crashed over night and the futures were showing a possible 1000 point fall at the open, which would trigger curbs that would keep the market from opening.

Instead the market fell only 500 points, and has since recovered. A little. But the ongoing outlook is dismal, if not downright frightening.

And what has Miss Wasilla been doing? She’s been giving personality profile interviews to People Magazine, where she says she’s an intellectual (despite not naming a single newspaper or magazine she reads when talking to Couric) and mentioning how she always wanted to name a baby boy “Zamboni.”

Memo to Joe the Plumber: Work on Pipes, Not Policy

After being mentioned 23 times in last night’s debate, Joe the Plumber had his 15 minutes of fame extended when Dianne Sawyer interviewed him. His beef with Barack Obama’s proposed tax policy was that if he were lucky enough to make $250,000 a year, he didn’t want to have the government tax it more. (The difference would be from a 36% tax rate to a 39% tax rate.)

Joe said, “Just because you work a little bit harder to have a little bit more money taken from you, that’s scary. I work hard for it, why should I be taxed more than other people?”

Sawyer: “What about people who make a million dollars, or five million dollars?”

Joe: “Why should they be penalized for being successful? … It’s a basic right. And Obama wants to take that basic right and penalize it. It’s a very socialist view and it’s incredibly wrong.”

Actually, it’s not socialist. Obama’s not advocating state ownership, merely an adjustment in what we already have: a progressive tax, which has a rate that increases as the amount subject to taxation increases. And it’s common in most advanced economies.

Joe’s opposition seems to come from working a little bit harder to having a little bit more money taken from him. In strictly personal terms, that makes sense. But even in the situation he’s describing, it doesn’t. Here’s why.

First, according to the US census, only 1.5% of all US households (not individuals, households) earn more than $250,000 a year. (As an aside, if you’re making even half of that, you’re doing pretty damned well, since 80% of people on earth live on less than $10 a day — that’s $3,650 a year.)

Second, if Joe is concerned that he’s going to get penalized on “working a little harder,” we have to question what his motivation is. If he’s lucky enough to make $100 an hour as a plumber, and he works 2,000 hours in a year, he’d make $200,000. Why isn’t that enough? What is the compelling reason to work another hour a week (or another week a year) to go from $200,000 to $250,000? It can’t be meeting basic needs. It has to be something else — like greed. Greed isn’t a basic right, it’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Third, if he’s complaining that he shouldn’t be taxed “more than other people,” what he’s actually advocating for is a proportional tax (i.e., a fixed tax rate for everyone), but it’s not very common, because the ability to pay that tax is disproportionately harder for people with lower incomes, so much so that such tax proposals usually exempt household income below a certain minimum threshold — in which case Joe’s same selfish argument would apply slightly differently: “Why should I work just to get taxed?”

Fourth, one of the way a progressive tax operates is to exempt some basic necessities from taxation (such as food), and taxing luxury items (such as yachts) instead. Many people, people like Joe, actually favor that.

As personal income grows, people tend to spend less and less of it (as a percentage) to meet their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter). In economics, there’s also a concept called the marginal utility of money, which is the “change in the total satisfaction derived from money that results from one unit of change in the quantity of money.” Put another way, one dollar is worth a whole lot more to someone living on a dollar a day than it is to Warren Buffett. So for high-income earners, they pay more taxes, but parting with it causes proportionately less pain (because they can still easily meet their needs).

Also, as income grows, some people derive income from their investments (property, stock, etc.),  so they’re not actually working harder for more income at all.

No one likes taxes, but if you’re lucky enough to be making more than 98.5 percent of everyone in the US (and 99.9% of everyone on earth), and you spend proportionally more income on things like luxury goods, you’d have to be awfully selfish indeed to believe you’re somehow entitled to keep every last penny when other people can’t afford to eat. Or build a school.

That’s why thinkers from Karl Marx to Adam Smith supported such progressive taxation, and 81 percent of economists support it now. Here’s Smith’s rationale: “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

Smith is talking about something Joe is omitting to mention. In a society, you ought to have rights, including the right to be successful. But you also have obligations. And one of your obligations ought to be to contribute to everyone else’s benefit. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had a really good quote about this. “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Last point: if a 3% increase for the highest incomes seems unfair, it’s worth noting that Bush tax cuts were hugely regressive: According to one set of data, “the top one percent of households (whose incomes average nearly $1.2 million) will receive an average tax cut of approximately $40,990 in 2004. This is more than 40 times the average tax break for those in the middle fifth of the income distribution.”

So why not turn Joe’s question on its head: why does someone in the middle income get a tax break that’s 40 times less?

What’s in a Name? The Canadian Election Version

Treehugger ran this photo, of a billboard in Montreal. The Conservative party in Canada is holding elections on Oct. 14 (holding them before the U.S., because if they held them after they’d lose badly —as the U.S., finally, is moving from the right back to the center). Thus, Canadian election signs. This one compares fascist Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who called the Kyoto accord “a socialist scheme,” with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

Don’t vote Conservative!! Why not? Slate (an American publication, fer chrissakes!) wrapped it up pretty nicely in a story titled “What’s the Matter with Canada? How the World’s Nicest Country Turned Mean.”

Here’s a snippet:

In June, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that Canada—for years the only G8 country to post regular budget surpluses—was likely to fall into deficit this year, thanks to a reckless cut to the national sales tax. In February, the government proposed denying funding to films and TV shows whose content it deemed “not in the public interest,” sparking cries of censorship from a sector that has historically received public support. In 2007, a member of the governing Conservative Party proposed a bill that would reopen the debate over abortion, a topic that governments both liberal and conservative have avoided for decades.

But nowhere is the rift between the old and new Canada more apparent than with regards to the environment. [They went from supporting Kyoto to “trying to block an agreement that set a target for future cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions.”]

Long story short, the Liberal party imploded and the Conservatives ran roughshod for a few years. Voting in October? Vote NDP. Vote Liberal. But unless you Canadians want your country to be as screwed up as your neighbors to the south, don’t vote Conservative.

I’m John Ochwat, and I approve this message. I just don’t approve of Stephen Harper.

Republicans Call Walking “Wacky,” Will Soon Have SUVs for Legs

Kathy Dahlkemper is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania. Republicans ran this ad about her recently, saying she has “wacky” ideas.

Rethuglicans say she has “wacky” ideas like opposing suspending the gas tax.

Why the gas tax is a bad idea: in addition to stimulating demand for gas, it would have been an “administrative nightmare” for the IRS and taxpayers themselves, and it would have crippled the highway trust fund used for infrastructure improvements. Oh, and it was a paltry amount of savings to begin with, only 18.4 cents per gallon … I’m sorry, what was the wacky idea again?

Her next “wacky” idea is to oppose domestic oil drilling. How wacky is it? Let’s have a look:

Hmm. That’s a just a drop in the gas tank, isn’t it? It would be a real industrial blight on the environment, though. And that’s worth something, isn’t it? What about non-offshore drilling? But you might suggest that oil companies start with the 30 million acres of leased land they already have and ignore.

“Dahlkemper’s wacky solution? She says we should make personal sacrifices, like walking places, and riding bikes.”

How wacky is walking?

  • walking slows aging
  • walking builds aerobic fitness
  • walking prevents diseases like colds
  • walking helps manage weight
  • walking walking controls blood pressure
  • walking boosts good cholesterol
  • walking decreases risk of heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, hip fracture, gallstone surgery, depression, colon, constipation, osteoporosis, and impotence
  • walking strengthens muscles and bones
  • walking improves sleep

… that’s why wacky organizations like the AARP recommend it.

And my personal favorite, that cycling is wacky. Since cycling is exercise, it also improves health and fitness in just about every way mentioned above. Here are some other fun tidbits:

“According to the Department of Transport, study people who do not exercise who start cycling move from the third of the population who are the least fit, to the fittest half of the population in just a few months.” Wacky.

“There can also be indirect benefits in terms of reducing injuries from falls, which can be seriously disabling, especially in older people. The strength and co-ordination that regular cycling brings make them less likely.”

And my personal favorite: “If you are worried about traffic fumes, there may be no need. Cyclists and pedestrians actually absorb lower levels of pollutants from traffic fumes than car drivers.

Lemme repeat: less fumes. Wacky indeed.

So tell me again: why is health a “sacrifice”? Oh yeah—because you can’t be healthy while driving your SUV? No, wait.

Phil English. Dude, get on your bike!

Phil English. Dude, get on your bike!

That’s Kathy Dahlkemper’s opponent, Phil English. Should I even mention how much walking and cycling would benefit him? No, better not. Too wacky.

PS – Right after I finished this post, I saw that Colin Beavan’s excellent post, “Do cars make us fat?” Check it out, especially the great graphic!

The Other Thursday Night Massacre

This Thursday we get to look forward to Sarah Palin debating Joe Biden (perhaps you missed her interview with Katie Couric?).

But what about next Thursday? Ahh, next Thursday my Toronto Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings. The good news is that expatriate me will get to see the Leafs on TV. The bad news? Let’s let Sports Illustrated’s Scott Wraight explain:

The mighty get mightier. That was the sentiment around the league after the Red Wings snagged Marian Hossa in free agency. Sometimes things just aren’t fair. According to the Edmonton Journal, coach Mike Babcock told Hossa “see you soon” during the ceremonial handshake at the end of last season’s Cup Final. Veteran Chris Chelios also reportedly called Hoss to convince him to come to Motown for more than just a chance to win a title. I won’t be surprised one bit if the Wings end up winning back-to-back Cups.

(Wraight rates the Wings number 1 in his “power rankings”)

Webster’s defines “agony” as extreme and generally prolonged pain. Leafs fans would classify agony as no postseason appearances since 2003-04 and no Cup since 1967. That won’t change as management takes the long-term approach. “If you asked us if you were to pay for a Stanley Cup team this year, but you were to be lousy for the next five years, would you do it? The answer from the ownership point of view, absolutely not,” co-owner Larry Tanenbaum told the Toronto Star. Is that really how Leafs fans feel?

(Wraight rates the Wings number 30 — that’s dead last — in his “power rankings”)

So … who d’ya think’s gonna fare worse?

Book Review: How Soccer Explains the World

soccer_world.jpegFranklin Foer’s book How Soccer Explains the World has the subtitle, “an {unlikely} theory of globalization.”

And his title and subtitle are, perhaps, my only quibbles with his excellent book. This isn’t one of those “Worms: How Fat, Soft-bodied Invertebrates Explain Human History” books.

It doesn’t exactly explain the world, though it is very much about globalization. The first part “tries to explain the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries.”

He calls this the “hooligan-heavy section of the book,” and once or twice he comes perilously close to retreading the same ground covered in Bill Buford’s harrowing and amazing Among the Thugs.

But Foer, an editor at the New Republic, goes the extra mile here, and it shows. His first chapter is how about a Serbian a soccer thug who helped organize troops who became murderers in the Balkan War. By the war’s end, the thug’s men had killed at least 2,000 Croats and Bosnians. There’s another, equally fascinating chapter about a soccer rivalry in Scotland inflamed by religious hatred.

The second section is more economic, with an excellent dissection of the disease-ridden state of football in Brazil, a look at Italian oligarchs, and arguably the most globalized chapter, about a Nigerian playing professional soccer in the Ukraine, where “Even the ruddy Ukranians line up in wool hats, long pants, and heavy parkas. Many Nigerians playing in the Ukraine complain bitterly about their inability to maneuver in these temperatures. They say that their frozen feet feel like sledgehammers, while their style of play demands a chisel’s delicacy.”

Apart from readers such as myself reaping the benefits of him roaming the world and watching soccer (in Brazil, Spain, Italy, the Ukraine, Scotland and the US, among others), the book is a whole new reading on politics, sometimes showing a country in an entirely new light as a result. One of the best chapters is about Islam, and the way that soccer has been a liberating influence for people there (especially women). The chapter on Brazil is no less illuminating. There’s even a two-chapter detour into The Jewish Question that describes Hakoah, a soccer team that’s a bona fide Jewish Sports Legend.

For as well informed as the book is about world events, Foer is no less astute when it comes to the US. He makes a fascinating argument that for children who came of age at the same time he did (I’d estimate he’s between 35 and 40), soccer was

a tabula rasa, a sport onto which a generation of parents could project their values. Quickly, soccer came to represent the fundamental tenets of yuppie parenting, the spirit of Sesame Street and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Unlike the other sports, it would foster self-esteem, minimize the pain of competition while still teaching life lessons.

That leads to a strange inversion in the United States: “In every other part of the world, soccer’s sociology varies little: it is the province of the working class.” In the US, as sporting goods surveys show, “children of middle class and affluent families play the game disproportionately.” I found that a shocking conclusion—not because it was wrong, but because my son plays youth soccer, and I still somehow didn’t see how obviously right it is.

In other words, soccer is an elitist sport, and thus derided by sports talk shows and conservatives who see it as yet another unpatriotic symptom in the American liberal disease of Europhilia.

Again, I’m not sure soccer explains the world, but it does make me see it in a whole new way.